There are four things you need to know before you read this:
- In fairy tales, the heroes always are human. Honest, blunt, exploding with good intentions, golden as the sun.
- In fairy tales, the Fair always are evil. Tricksters, subtle, sirens luring their lovers, dark as a forest.
- The heroes always win, golden light overtaking the darkness.
- This is no fairy tale.
Light bleaches the forest. Leaves contorting from splashes of acid light. Light sweeps through the forest, piercing the night with deadly searchlights.
I burrow back, tree roots gently stroking my arms, whispers of comfort pulsating through my skin. Miles away, the Final Haven slumbers, oblivious to the human feet and torches trampling towards them.
“Stay here,” the trees whisper, “where it is safe, where our roots will cradle you, where the foul light cannot burn. Stay with us.”
“Run away,” the earth begs, “back home, back where they are unaware, back where they sleep until death comes for them. Warn them.”
“There!” a human voice cries. “There’s something in the trees.”
The trees scream, dismayed as I erupt from them. The humans scream, shivering with frisson as their eyes land on me. Three arrows scream, soaring through the air as they deploy fire and death.
Guns crack through the night, rattling oak leaves and reverberating through my ears.
Pain ricochets up my ankles, twigs shattering beneath the balls of my feet as I flee. The forest explodes, light splintering the shadows, voices burning away the peace, guns tearing through the trees.
These men think they own this forest. They think that our language is one crafted specifically to taunt them. They think that we are gods meant to be slain.
They are wrong.
They were not born of these trees, they cannot name them as easily as their own kin, they cannot whisper to the earth and hear answers in the wind.
They rule forests, they do not ally with them.
Trees dance around me as I fly past, their arms guide me forward, slamming down to lock my attackers behind. My heart pounds against my chest, a rabid animal desperate for freedom. Bark scraps against my skin, frantic claws dragging me onward. Gunshots bark behind me, dogs biting at my heels. Hunters raise their voices in triumph, jeering that I am trapped, that I cannot hope to fight back.
Bitterness wrings my gut as I realize that they are right.
They have guns, I have arrows. They have torches and headlamps, I have the moon and stars. They have heavy boots and camouflage, I have bare feet and leather tunics.
But my arrows are light, the moon and stars are my maps, my clothing came from the animals of this forest and their spirits are glad to run free once more.
No. I cannot hope to fight the hunters.
But the hunters have no hope to outlast me.
Pain burns across my arm, blood splattering across the gentle green leaves. My feet catch in the undergrowth as I stumble. I barely spot the bullet that grazed me, rushing past, a living shadow. It shatters through a tree, splinters of wood raining down in the forest. Trees howl through the night as they cry for their wounded sister. Against all logic, I slow. My heels dig into the ground as I twist, reaching for the wounded tree. The bleeding bark presses against my hand, life dribbling away from my fingers. The second when my hand makes contact, the world is sucked away, the howling muffling as the tree weeps under my touch. For a horrible moment, the tree oozes sap like blood, the heart of it fluttering under my fingertips. My vision pops with white as I see the world around me, my roots holding me tall, my branches lifting me up, my family crowding around, my—
“Move!” the trees shriek at me, rending me away from their sister. Headlamps demolish the night, stinging my eyes as they appear. The world rushes back, violent as the hunters. Red alarms blind and deafen me as they clammer, a frantic heartbeat underneath the howling of louder sirens.
Hunters reach for me, their pale fingers worming forward like maggots.
Leaves tear away from their trees, caught in my hair as I leap away. I run, fast as a rabbit through the forest. Branches pull me along the correct paths, wind whispers in my ears the way to go. Words form from the stars, anxious whispers from helpless children of nature.
“Run, little one,” the sky weeps. “If they catch you, they will kill you.”
Old words, whispered from one refugee to another. The answer bursts from me before I can even think the words: “But first they must catch me.”
Insanely, I realize that I’m smiling. I turn back, flashing my grin for the hunters to see. Flashing those pointed teeth the humans are so afraid of.
They hate me.
They do not even know me.
They think they are better than me.
They never bothered to learn from me.
I dive aside, twisting painfully on my side as I slide down a cave.
Booted feet trample past me, harsh against the innocent forest floor.
I shake my head, leaves falling free to the floor below me.
Foolish, ignorant humans. Did they not realize that I was exactly where I wanted to be? That in pursuing me, they ruined their own trail? The Final Haven is safe, the humans too consumed with bloodlust to remain on task.
Two boots pause in front of my cave.
I freeze, barely able to breathe.
The boots turn, clods of dirt stuck to their toes.
The cave presses against me, whispering old words: “If they catch you, they will kill you.”
Tightly drawn laces end in uneven double knots, stained brown leather stretches across the hunter’s feet. Humans have no desire to connect with the forest, their feet and shoes grind into the earth rather than partner with it.
The boots take two steps forward, crushing two small mushrooms under them. My eyes fall on a tiny rip in the seams of the boots.
Said boots stop once more, ankles bending as the wearer crouches.
A gloved hand stretches out, dirt caught in the worn creases. I can’t move. I can do nothing but stare at the glove as it comes nearer. The black tips catch on the hanging vines keeping me hidden. Moonlight spills into the cave.
A head ducks down where the vines once were.
For one breathless moment, I think he hasn’t seen me. Thick glasses scan the cave, their green bug eyes methodically moving from one end to the other. The stars glitter, reflected by a silver whistle around the hunter’s neck. Loose curls catch in his thick collar as he turns his head.
I see myself, reflected back in his glasses.
My hands are on him before he has the chance to blow his whistle.
I’ve heard that in a fight, the world slows down. Adrenaline and muscle memory kick in, you’re moving and fighting before you even realize that’s what you’re doing. My brother says that you barely even register pain, it all blurs together. I’ve been told that with enough practice, you barely even have to think, you just move. Somehow, as the world spins around you, your body knows what to do. It anticipates strikes before they come, it catches openings and weaknesses, analyzing your opponent for you.
This was nothing like what I’d heard.
My daggers claw at him like fat cat’s claws.
His whistle clatters across the cave, torn from his neck.
I bare my teeth, biting, scratching, striking.
His fist drives squarely into my stomach, ejecting the air from me.
I may be fast, light, and nimble, but I am smaller, weaker, and more desperate.
He may be slow, heavy, and awkward, but the weapons that weigh him down pack far heavier punches than I do.
Gloved fingers wrap around my hair, yanking me backwards as pain ignites across my scalp.
I caterwaul like the wild thing they say I am, reaching back to plunge my knife down into his wrist. My knife barely scrapes against him but it startles him enough to let go.
This is not a fight, this is a clumsy tussle. I’m suddenly irrationally glad that I’m alone. If my brother were here, he would mock me for how I’m “fighting.”
The heel of my palm drives into his face, knocking those horrid glasses loose. Blood splatters across my face as the hunter’s nose explodes like a broken faucet.
The hunter stumbles back, his hands instinctively reaching for his face.
It’s the only opening I need.
I’ve pictured this moment a thousand times. The moment our eyes would lock, the second I ‘d know my whole life was about to change, the perfect instant that time would slow down and the world shrink to just us. For the last few weeks, my dreams have been plagued with this moment. The perfect one. The perfect being. The One. The first human I would kill.
Eyes as bright as the sky lock on mine, purple and red blooming across his cheek. My knife drives back against his throat and he chokes, even as he tries to sneer.
Sweat makes the handle slippery in my hands, blue eyes make my heart lose its nerve.
I have fantasized about finally doing this, finally killing a human, breaking the purity inside of me with a death. My sister believes that once you kill someone, you can never go back. I told her that I certainly hope so. I have not wanted to rest until two humans die for every one of the Fair Folk they killed.
Once I killed my first, I intended to never look back. I was ready to look into their eyes and relish watching the life fade away. I decided my deaths would be quick, a mercy the hunters did not deserve.
…I had not expected them to look so much like us. I had not expected to see…well, a life in those eyes.
I shake my head, readjusting my grip.
But still, those eyes.
I did not think I would see light, intelligence, or fear behind those horrible glasses. I did not even consider the possibility of emotions existing in humans, except for anger, hate, and prejudice towards my kind.
I did not expect my first kill to be a boy my own age, feigning at bravery as much as I do. I am paralyzed looking at him, realizing that those eyes could belong to me. That raised chin, that shaky sneer, the fear masquerading as hate. But for a trick of fate, he could be me.
Then he speaks, and makes everything worse
“Go ahead then,” he snarls. “Kill me. Splatter my tainted blood all over your precious, holy forest.”
I adjust my stance, steady my grip. It will be quick, bloody, merciful. Better than any death his kind had given mine. I will not lose my soul over him.
I let out a breath, the wind brushing back his hair. He sets his jaw as I brace.
Only to find that I cannot do it.
“I’m not going to kill you.”
“Can’t get blood on these holy leaves?” he mocks.
I yank him to his feet, roughly shoving him back against the cave’s wall. “Shut your mouth or I’ll shut it for you.”
He doesn’t. “If you’re not going to kill me, what are you going to do?” He tilts his head, as though unaware of my knife against his throat. “Take me back to your camp?”
“I’m not going to hurt you.” I say bitterly. My choice wasn’t from lack of trying. That stupid emotion in his eyes had stolen my nerve.
“That’s what your kind does. You live to torture us, to play with us, to wind us up like your own little tin soldiers and set us loose on each other and make us—”
“Shut up.” But I want him to continue. To goad me into killing him.
“—convince us to sign away our souls and our children for nothing more than a drink of water. I’ve heard the stories, met the survivors. You fairies—”
“Shut up.” I wait for the spark to come back, the hate, the desire to watch him bleed out and choke on his own lifeblood.
“—because it’s funny. Because you get some twisted thrill out of it. What do you do with the ones you take?”
“Shut up!” I screech. There it was. There was the anger I longed for. But even still, I cannot muster the desire to kill him.
The hunter raises his eyebrows, unimpressed.
“You know nothing about my people,” I hiss.
“You’re telling me you’ve never hurt a human? Never thought about it? And that you don’t know anyone that has?”
“You’re the one hunting me in my forest.”
“It’s not your forest!” he spits. “My people’ve been here just as long as yours have.”
“Then why are you fighting us?” The words tear free without my consent.
He laughs harshly. “Maybe we decided we didn’t like being your little playthings anymore.”
“We’re not like that,” I growl.
“Then what are you?”
“We’re not what you say we are. We’re not invaders or monsters or liars. We have stories too, stories about your people and what they did to us. We’re not your devils, we’re not your damned, we’re not here to steal your souls! We’re people. Just like you. And we have hopes and dreams and families and—and—and we get scared and we cry and we laugh and we—” My breath shakes on the way in. “We are more than you could ever imagine.”The boy leans in, drops of blood sprouting against my blade. “You’re beasts. You’re monsters. You’re heathens. You say you’re afraid? You should be.”